Beyond Juneteenth: A yearlong celebration of Black history, culture and contributions
The celebration will culminate with Juneteenth, which the university will observe as a paid holiday for the first time in 2023.
A yearlong celebration of Juneteenth is underway at the University of Arizona, with plans for speakers, educational resources, and even virtual reality experiences to tell the story of Black people in the Southwest.
The Juneteenth holiday, which falls on June 19 and was observed on June 20 this year, commemorates the arrival of Union soldiers in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 – more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed – to announce that enslaved people in Texas were free.
In a message to the campus community earlier this month, President Robert C. Robbins announced that the university will observe Juneteenth as a paid holiday beginning in 2023.
In alignment with the university's values, Robbins said, the recognition of the holiday will be broad and robust.
"Our observance of Juneteenth will go beyond marking this single historic day and will illuminate and celebrate the history of African Americans in the Southwest and the impact Black Americans have had in shaping our state and our region," Robbins wrote.
The university has formed a committee to develop programming to highlight the significance of Juneteenth, teach about the history of Black people in the Southwest and spotlight the work being done by Black scholars at UArizona.
To that end, the committee – co-chaired by Tyina Steptoe, associate professor of history, and Treya Allen, diversity, equity and inclusion instructional support coordinator in the General Education office – has developed a yearlong program called Beyond Juneteenth.
"When you see Juneteenth, a lot of people associate it with Blackness or enslaved folks," Allen said. "But beyond it being about the emancipation of enslaved Black folks, the last of them being in Galveston, Texas, it's really about the notion of all humanity deserving freedom – point blank, period."
One of the initial Beyond Juneteenth efforts was the university's sponsorship of the Tucson Juneteenth Festival, held June 18. The university also partnered with local radio station KXCI to produce storytelling segments from community members reflecting on Juneteenth and its legacy. The segments aired throughout the day on June 18 and 19 and are available online.
The university also held a virtual panel discussion – "Beyond Juneteenth: Getting to Know Black Arizona" – with Black scholars speaking on the joy and legacy of Juneteenth. Among the topics was why it's important that Juneteenth be recognized not as just a holiday for the Black community.
"When we think about the abolition of American slavery, I think that that is one of the most important moments in all of American democracy," said panelist Jerome Dotson, assistant professor in the Department of Africana Studies. "It radically changed how we can see this country. So, I think if you love America the way that maybe you say you do, then you should love Juneteenth."
Dawn Demps, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Practice, said it's important for the entire country to understand the struggles of Black people in the past so they can "understand why it is we rejoice in a recognition of Juneteenth."
The panel also included Michael Johnson, assistant professor in the Department of Immunobiology, and Obenewaa Oduro-Opuni, assistant professor in the Department of German Studies.
The year ahead
Much of the programming the committee is working on will focus on the history and legacy of Black people in the Southwest.
"Often when you think about Black people, you think about urban situations like New York or LA, or you think about the South," said Celeste Atkins, assistant director of faculty mentoring initiatives in the Office of the Provost and a member of the Beyond Juneteenth committee. "But African Americans have a vast, rich heritage in the Southwest, which is where I grew up, and we don't often hear about that."
Black history has significant ties to many aspects of history that are considered inherently Southwestern, Atkins says, including cowboy culture, rodeos and lumberjacking.
Atkins says the committee is working on developing partnerships with institutes and organizations including the Pima County Public Library, local churches and the Dunbar Pavilion, an African American arts and culture center, to create reading lists and resource guides and provide speaker opportunities to highlight Black history and contributions of African Americans in the Southwest.
For example, Bryan Carter, associate professor in the Department of Africana Studies, is working with Arizona Heritage Tours to create virtual reality simulations so people can experience what the Arizona territory was like for Black residents in the 1800s, Atkins said.
Overall, the goal is to help people understand that African American history is part of American history.
"We have fallen short by making this distinction that African American history is separate from American history," said Denise TrimbleSmith, project director in the university's Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Beyond Juneteenth committee member. "That is a fallacy. African American history is American history."
The committee expects to launch a website including cultural and historical resources, event listings and more in the coming weeks.
"If we do anything of worth through this yearlong project," Allen said, "I believe what will show from it is the willingness to have more people come to the table and say, 'Can I add to that?' Ultimately, that's our goal."
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